Special Report: What Happens When Teachers In Okaloosa Are Accused of Hurting Children?

In this special report we look at what agencies investigate accusations of misconduct - and their differing burdens of proof.

Fourth down and two. 

All eyes focused on the five-yard line at Niceville High School on October 6, 2023, in the waning moments of the Niceville Eagles’ Football game against Pine Forest High School. 

As time wound down on the clock, Niceville High School Kicker Logan Marise jogged onto the field. The senior kicker would have to make a 22-yard chip shot to take the lead over Pine Forest and win the game for the Eagles. 

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The crowd roared as the ball sailed through the uprights – the band, which had played in a show that combined the Niceville High School, Ruckel Middle School, and Lewis School Bands, would belt out another tune for the victory one minute later. 

But the close win for the Eagles at home isn’t the story today – the former Ruckel Middle School Band Director is. 

Ruckel Middle School Band Director Terri Bruse resigned from her post at the Okaloosa County School District on December 8, after allegations she pulled a high school student’s hair on the football field in a joint band practice before the October sixth game were categorized as ‘substantiated’ by a school district investigator.

That report made a series of allegations against Bruse, an Okaloosa County School District teacher for more than 20 years, who school district officials say resigned instead of termination. District Staff looked into the incident recommended both termination of Bruse and reporting her to the Florida Department of Professional Practices for further investigation. 

However, Bruse did not mention the investigation or the alleged incident in her email to all Ruckel parents on December 8, 2023. 

“Through the years, I have found that things don’t always go as planned, and my life is no exception. After much thought and prayer, I am making the difficult decision to leave Ruckel after ten years,” Bruse wrote in an email to Ruckel Middle School parents on December 8, “As you all know, I have struggled recently with the stress of such a demanding job and being a single parent of 4 children. The combination of the two have become unsustainable for me, and I will be pursuing other opportunities that allow me more flexibility so I can make my own children and my health a priority.”

We contacted Bruse and the union representing all Okaloosa County teachers multiple times to request interviews on the subject. They did not respond to our requests for comment regarding the publishing of this story.

Facts: What We Know Happened 

When an allegation is made against a teacher about a student – three different groups open up official investigations. At the local level, the school district and the sheriff’s office open separate, parallel investigations. An investigator from the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and another from the School District’s HR Office run the investigations. 

Furthermore, the Florida Department of Children and Families (DCF) conducts a third investigation. According to DCF spokesperson Miguel Navarez, this investigation is irrelevant to the public and can be used by DCF or local law enforcement to prosecute an alleged offender. 

Two days after the alleged incident, Ruckel Middle School Principal Joe Jannazo put Bruse on administrative leave and brought in the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and the school district investigator to investigate the incident. 

The Sheriff’s Office then filed a police report that they would ultimately put on ice due to what one officer noted was a ‘lack of probable cause’. 

The DCF cited the confidentiality of their case in response to our records request – and was a dead end for information. So, we will not have any info from them. 

The lion’s share of what we uncovered comes from the records provided by the school district and sheriff’s office. From those records, we can piece together a narrative and understand what happens when someone accuses a teacher of physical abuse of a child in Okaloosa County. 

On November 9, a report on the incident by Okaloosa Schools HR Investigator Shelley Jacobs recommended termination of Bruse’s employment and referral to the state standards board for further review. In that report – Jacobs would note that the Florida Department of Children and Families would not pursue further investigation against Bruse, saying that Child Protective Investigator Anna Anderson explained, “she would likely close her case with ‘not substantiated’ findings since the intention was unclear, and Bruse could not be considered a caregiver to [the victim] since she is not her teacher.” 

Two-and-a-half weeks later, the deputy superintendent for Human Resources, Lee Hale, would sign off on the document Jacobs created, which recommended Bruse’s termination. 

Twelve days later, on December 8, Bruse sent the email announcing her resignation and offering her services as a private music tutor. She told parents she was leaving the school to give herself more flexibility to raise her four children as a single parent. 

With both of the cases from DCF and Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office closed with no charges – the matter ended there.

What Happened?

The school district narrative begins before the Sheriff’s Office does – and includes interviews with four teachers, three students, two principals, two parents, and Bruse herself. The Sheriff’s Office investigator’s report names nearly as many subjects – but draws different conclusions about the viability of a case against Bruse. The sheriff’s report focuses on the alleged incident on the field, where the school district investigator’s report places its microscope solely on what may or may not have happened on the field October 6. 

The District Investigator’s Narrative of Events

According to the report filed by Investigator Shelley Jacobs of Okaloosa County School District, an investigation found both of the allegations that Bruse had interacted with a student that caused her embarrassment or disparagement and that Bruse had displayed inappropriate behavior with students consistently, were substantiated. Jacobs’ direct supervisor and the Assistant Superintendent of Human Resources, Lee Hale, signed off on the findings on November 27th and 28th. 

The report shows the witnesses and interviewees had different feelings from one another about whether or not the incident occurred and whether it was possible. All four of the students interviewed at the incident say they felt, saw, or otherwise witnessed the attack on the student. They say Bruse pulled on the ponytail of a Niceville High School band member because she was not in the right place at the practice as Bruse walked behind her. 

When asked about the incident by the school district investigator, Bruse denied anything had happened. The investigator asked Bruse why four students would have the same recollection of an incident that did not happen. The investigator’s report says Bruse did not know why the students would make it up – and that someone lied about the incident. 

Leaders at Niceville High School told the investigator that they were not present and didn’t see the alleged attack – they were not surprised to hear something had happened. Principal Charlie Marello and Band Director Dan Wooten told the investigator they had both heard rumors about unprofessional activity regarding Bruse – and had some personal experience with children being inappropriately dealt with in Bruse’s Middle School class. 

However, not all interviewees believed the claims that Bruse attacked a student. Ruckel English Teacher and head band chaperone Jami Nespoli said in contrast; she could not definitively say the incident did not happen; she had known Bruse for “6-8 years” and had “never seen Bruse do anything inappropriate with the students. Nespoli explained that she finds Bruse very understanding and engaged with her students.” In addition to Nespoli, Meigs Band Director Daniel Cooke defended Bruse. While he said he couldn’t say with certainty the incident did not occur – he didn’t think it did because, as the report says, “he does not believe Bruse would hurt a student.”

The Sheriff’s Office Narrative of Events

According to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office Affidavit we secured, their investigation began when the parent of the girl who allegedly had her hair pulled by Bruse called the office at Ruckel Middle School. Soon after the call with Principal Joe Jannazo ended, the principal filled out a form and put Bruse on administrative leave, according to the affidavit. 

Deputy Melissa Vause, the initial reporter on the case for the Sheriff’s Office and the School Resource Officer for Niceville High School, noted that Ruckel Middle School Resource Officer Chad Smith emailed her about the Administrative Leave Form. From there, the investigation began with interviews of the student who was allegedly abused – as well as other students who say they saw the incident take place. Vause reported the student had been out of place in the band’s formation, which the student believes incited Bruse to attack her. Another witness told the SRO that they did not initially remember anything happening at the game – until the SRO asked about Bruse’s activity that evening. The student then said the SRO he witnessed Bruse pull the student’s hair – but thought it was a joke and thought he saw the alleged victim smiling. 

Another interview with a student gave a different tenor to the situation. This student said they were next to the alleged victim and saw Bruse yell at the alleged victim and hold a clipboard in her face. The witness then said she saw the victim’s head tilt back out “as if her hair had been pulled.”

Accusations Of A Hostile Classroom Environment. 

The other part of the investigation – and the second substantiated claim Jacobs looked into was the possibility Bruse had shared inappropriate information about her personal life – specifically her divorce – with students and had also harassed, intimidated, or otherwise displayed behaviors inconsistent with what the school district expects of its teaching staff. 

All four students interviewed for the investigation told Jacobs they had not particularly liked Bruse’s class and that Bruse had played favorites. One talked about how they had fallen out of favor when they decided not to participate in an end-of-year concert – and had paid the price in Bruse’s class. The students saw behavior change toward them after the decision and felt they were retaliated against. Others spoke about favoritism, which they claim they saw or experienced firsthand. 

Parents interviewed for the investigation agreed with the student’s assessment and accused Bruse of creating a hostile environment in the classroom, according to the district investigator’s report. One parent talked about how their child wanted to quit band because of the alleged treatment they received in the class. The parent accused Bruse of doing “venomous things to students she didn’t like, and would try to pass them off as a joke or explain them away,” according to the school district investigator’s report.

Several teachers and administrators believed Bruse had the capability and inclination to retaliate against students and described her classroom environment as a negative one. Niceville High School Band Director Dan Wooten told investigators that he wasn’t surprised by the allegations against Bruse and was aware of several claims Bruse had acted unprofessionally and had motivated students to quit the band. Niceville Principal Charlie Marello echoed the same sentiments and had talked to Bruse about issues with grades from a personal context. 

Daniel Cooke worked as the Band Assistant at Ruckel Middle School before moving to Meigs Middle School in the Fort Walton Beach area. According to the investigator’s reports, he said he had never seen Bruse behave threateningly or belittle students in her care – or talk about inappropriate parts of her personal life. “Cooke denied seeing Bruse single out students in an embarrassing or disparaging manner,” the report said, “Cooke explained that Bruse handled discipline of students so he got to stay the “good guy”. Cooke Reported that he never saw Bruse retaliate toward students or play favorites.”

Conclusions

The three groupings of witnesses had different visibility in the case and came to different conclusions. On the first level were the students who gave statements, and Bruse herself. They were the only people interviewed who had first-hand knowledge of what happened on the field. In the second level, teachers and administrators who were on the field or acting in a professional capacity on the evening of October 6 during the Niceville High School Football game. Finally, in the third level, parents who provided background information and may have been in the stands or at home – but provided context around the situation in the classroom more generally. 

In the first ring, four students gave statements that the investigator determined were similar enough to be believed on their faces against what Bruse had said. 

In the second ring, one set of teachers and administrators said they did not have a positive outlook on Bruse – due to accusations in the past of favoritism and other perceived errors in judgment. One member of this ‘side’ of the report said he was “not surprised” by the accusations. Ruckel Middle School Principal Joe Jannazo told the investigators that he had had conversations with Bruse about her “approach and positive interactions with students moving forward in the classroom., as well as all her interactions with students and staff.” 

Parents of the children in the incident made up the third ring of witnesses. They were the furthest away from what happened that evening and provided context to the accusations against Bruse more generally. These parents noted they had multiple grievances against Bruse and had held them for several years. They believe this is just the latest incident in a pattern. 

So who’s right?

Jacobs turned in her report on November 9 and made the following conclusions:

Hair Pulling

In the first allegation – Bruse pulled a student’s hair; the District’s investigator claimed she found enough evidence to substantiate the claim against Bruse. 

“Although Bruse denied pulling [the victim’s] hair, the preponderance of evidence proved otherwise. Three students witnessed the interaction, and all provided that Bruse pulled [the victim’s] hair. Bruse claimed the three statements were false but was unable to provide a reason or motivation for why three different students would claim to witness the same incident. There is no information or evidence to support that the student interviews were fabricated. Alternatively, it is concerning that Bruse would deny that there was an interaction with [the victim] at all. There is a possibility that Bruse’s action may have been carried out in a joking manner. However, it is believed that Bruse’s tone, verbiage, and action during the action made it difficult to determine the motivation behind the action. It is also concerning that the amount of force used in the incident would rise to the level of [the victim’s] head being pulled backward. A student should never have to be put in the position to have to determine if a teacher had harmful or malicious intentions behind their actions.” 

The Sheriff’s Office did not find probable cause and chose not to move forward with this investigation, meaning charges from this alleged incident are not likely. 

The DCF cited state statutes and refused to answer questions about their methodology. According to the School District investigator’s report, the DCF also closed their case without moving forward against Bruse. 

A Hostile Environment

The second allegation was found to be substantiated by the school district’s investigator as well. “Through the investigative process, additional concerns for Bruse’s behavior were expressed. The concerns allege Bruse has a history of exploiting the power dynamic between students and teachers,” Jacobs wrote, “While the evidence gathered surrounding these specific examples was inconclusive, the incidents previously addressed with Bruse and the current allegations must be considered. It should be noted that there is a preponderance of evidence showing that Bruse has a pattern of engaging with students in an unprofessional manner. It is additionally concerning that the type of behavior being investigated was previously addressed with Bruse.”

The Sheriff’s Office did not investigate the second allegation, per the affidavit they filed about the alleged hair-pulling incident on October 6. 

Again, the DCF cited state statutes and refused to answer questions about their methodology. According to the School District investigator’s report, they also closed their case against Bruse without moving forward. 

Superintendent’s Statement

A final note; we contacted the Office of the Superintendent, Marcus Chambers, concerning the allegations and the case. The office sent back this statement on the case and the situation more broadly:

“The Okaloosa County School District launched an investigation upon being notified of an incident involving a student. The Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and the Department of Children and Families also initiated independent investigations. Upon careful review of the District’s investigative report, it was confirmed that there was sufficient evidence to substantiate the allegation and that Okaloosa County School Board policies and Florida State Board of Education rules were violated. A positive school climate is imperative, and all Okaloosa County students shall be treated fairly and respectfully. Every day, our teachers make a difference in students’ lives, and students should never be made to feel that their safety is in question. Okaloosa County is blessed to have highly effective educators who challenge, nurture, and love our students and are committed to making our students’ learning experiences exceptional. We expect our employees to perform their jobs as professionals, and any employee who falls short of those standards will be held accountable.”

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